Sunday, June 18, 2017

It's a metaphor, fool.

I read something once that discussed, evolutionarily, why we run (why we do any activity of heavy exertion or focus, really), basing it on an inherent need to find strife and struggle in our modern, mundane, first world. Basically, life is too easy so we invent problems...just so we can solve the problems we invented.

Running, for most of us, is a constant.  I've you've been running regularly for long enough--be it months or years--eventually the act becomes habit. I've never felt the "runner's high," but I have felt newfound peace after a day spent alone in the woods with only my thoughts to keep my company. I love, I cherish ultrarunning because even now, 39 races later, I can find new meaning in familiar places. Running is a metaphor for life, and the converse is true as well. Any run can apply to this, but some do so better than others.

I signed up for Bighorn 50 in January and told a few friends even that day that I planned to win. I've never won anything before, but after a frustrating finale to running at the hypothermic Bear 100 in 2016 and for the first time since I trained for Western States in 2014, I wanted a real goal that required effort to succeed. I toyed with the idea of aiming for the record, though thankfully conditions on race day did not allow any even feigned attempt at that mark, as I think trying for it would have cost me the win.

Anyway, let's get back to the metaphor. Prior to my very first ultra, and long before we became good friends, the venerable Eric Grossman gave me the most trite yet sage wisdom: it doesn't always get worse. The light at the end of the tunnel, the rainbow after the storm, whatever you will; it doesn't always get worse. I camped at the 50 mile start line Friday night with my friend Chrissy, who was also running the 50 mile, so as to see several friends turn around there in the 100 mile race that started that morning and to avoid an abhorrent 1:45 wake-up call for the bus to the start line. On Friday, tracing our way westward along the course, the weather was stellar: blue skies and a little cool (55-60 degrees at Dry Fork compared to 85+ last year). However, as if summoned, as we turned off the highway toward the Jaws trailhead for the night, the rain began. It rained, and it rained, and then it eased off slightly for 20 minutes with a brief lightening of the cloud hues to the west, teasing us, and then it rained some more. It rained as the lead men came through and stayed nearly 30 minutes in the aid station fighting hypothermia, it rained as the only friend I managed to see before my bedtime, Colleen, came in cold but casual halfway through her first hundred. It rained as we broke down our pop tent. It was not raining when we woke up at 4 am for race morning, but by 4:45, the rain had begun again. By the time we stood at the parking lot edge listening to the race director announce "these are [sigh] the worse trail conditions we've seen in the 25 years of the race," sleet was falling.
My friend Leonard, who had paced a friend up in the night to drive my car back to town after we started, told me that afternoon he woke up at 7:30 am to a fresh 3 inches of snow on the car. It doesn't always get worse. 

The director said the magic words and we started running down the road into unknown levels of mud. A group of three of us settled in together as we transitioned to the initial notoriously boggy singletrack that crests the short climb from Jaws. For that first mile, the bogs felt familiar. "It's this muddy every year" I thought. Then we crested the short climb and began the 16 miles of descent to Footbridge. I glanced up searching for a view and fell. Then I fell again. I reache to change songs on my iPod and fell. I shot a glance to gauge my distance to the second aid station and fell. That time I slide a couple feet face first, somehow unhooking the safety pins of my bib and leaving it in the mud. After taking the time to repin my now illegible number, I fought with all my might to stay upright two more miles just to misstep and go down again. Finally I wandered off trail to fertilize some trees and collect myself. I stays there until I had calmed down; being this frustrated 8 miles into 50 could not bode well. It doesn't always get worse. If anyone feels the need to peruse my Strava data, you can actually see the succinct shift from mile nine to mile ten. From then to Footbridge at mile 18, I spent my energy on control, restriction. Staying comfortable and, more importantly, upright. A day later, my arms and core are just as sore and tender as my legs from the work staying upright. Seeing Julia Combs nearly at the aid station was a breath of fresh air and I think our hug was what we both needed then. Seeing Crewmaster Rush Combs at Footbridge, shouting my name through the toothbrush wedged in his mouth, was a much needed relief. The coke he filled my bottle with was even better.

The climb from footbridge to the Bear Camp aid station is notorious at 2,300 feet of gain in about four miles. Last year, at the torrential Rut 50k, I discovered after a certain threshold of muddiness, running provides more purchase than hiking. In a hiking gait, you find yourself precariously tiptoeing upward, placing far too little weight on each footfall. Running by definition places all your weight onto every footfall. Though much more energy intensive, the trade-off is there to run instead of hike if you do not mind the risk of burning out the engine. And, if the fitness is there, the engine only requires enough gasoline to keep burning. I bumped up my food consumption on the climb and afterward to keep the fire going, filling my bottle with coke at every aid station and eating whatever looked best off the table (mostly cheez-its and bacon), being sure to take in a cup or two of caloried fluid before leaving any aid station. I passed who I found of after the race to be Ryan Burch (in the early morning miles, I was paying too much attention failing to stay upright to have any idea who was around me) before both Bear Camp and Cow Camp aid stations only to see him ahead of me not long after leaving, having passed me as I stood around stuffing my face.

The start times for the four Bighorn races (100M, 52M, 32M, 18M) are set up so that runners finish in the park in Dayton, Wyoming throughout the day Saturday. This means that, starting at the furthest away point, we spent the day catching up to the tail end of the other three races. It also meant that I did not know for certain that I was leading (or that I had won) until I checked the results thirty minutes after finishing. I passed people of various distances with obscured bib numbers, many of whom were running very well, and I did not know if they were in my race or not. At Dry Fork, with 18 miles remaining, enough people told me I was the first 50 miler there that I had confidence in the idea, but then several people running around my pace up the road from the aid station that I was again uncertain and knew not to ease up. Plus, somehow, thankfully, the mud significantly eased after Dry Fork, allowing for some actual running. I had told myself leading up to the race, and reminded myself on the slight descent into Upper Sheep Gulch, that if I was leading or even within striking distance when I began the ridiculous 3,500 foot descent to the finish line, I could actually win the damn thing. I trust my ability to beat my quads into submission late in a race; that is one skill I have at very least. I ran down the road to town (a magical road that seems to trend uphill even though it traces a river downstream) as best I could into a solid headwind, and crossed the finish line relieved. I had atually done the thing. I set a goal, made a plan, and even with the universe throwing a wrench into everything, I got it done. Scrolling through results, this is my slowest 50 mile time since 2012 when Mountain Masochist had two feet of wet snow on course, and yet it's the first time I've won.

Somewhere in the narrative I might have lost the metaphor. Sometimes life knocks you down. Sometimes you fall in the mud. Sometimes you fall again and cut yourself, and then fall again to get mud in the wound, but you are not sure if you fell in mud or cow shit, and you feel bad enough that you don't really care which. But if you put your head down and trudge forward, focusing on the little things and taking care of yourself, doing your best to simply stay upright, it won't always get worse. Doing your best ever is irrelevant if your best on the day is what you need. The clouds clear, the sun comes out, and you just keep running.

HUGE thanks to Salomon for providing me with shoes (Sense 6 Softground) that did their best to help in the worst mud I've ever run through and with shorts that held all my goodies through the day.


  1. Well done my man; more for picking the right goal than for getting the win. That seems to get more important with age. EG